Workplace violence affects more than 2 million workers every year. Vaugh Baker, president at Strategos International, discusses how to prepare your employees to spot the red flags and react properly if violence occurs.
Listen to this interview on the WorkSAFE Podcast, or read the show notes below.
Each year, 2 million workers across America are victim to some form of violence at their workplace. Founded in 2002, Strategos International is a security company that helps reduce this number. They offer training and consulting services to help employers increase their workplace security. Over 150,000 people in 15 countries have used their expertise to create safer schools, churches, healthcare organizations, and businesses.
As the #2 cause of death in the workplace after traffic accidents, anywhere from 800-1000 people will lose their lives to workplace violence this year. Strategos president Vaughn Baker works with employers to find security solutions that work for them. Baker worked previously in law enforcement and brings 18 years of experience to the job. To protect the lives of employees and ensure workplace safety, Vaughn recommends preparing ahead.
What is Workplace Violence?
Workplace violence can happen in any industry and exist in different ways. A high-risk employee who has faced disciplinary action or even the loss of a job can present the risk of workplace violence. Heated disagreements between coworkers can escalate to physical confrontations. Dissatisfied or angry customers may threaten the safety of employees. One of the most visible forms of workplace violence is mass casualty events – violence carried out on large scale and frequently broadcast nationwide.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recognizes that employees in some industries face an increased risk of violence on the job, such as those who:
- Work early morning or late-night hours
- Frequently exchange money with the public
- Work in areas with high crime rates
- Routinely deliver goods or transport passengers
- Work in the healthcare community or provide social services
An employee’s personal situation, like financial issues or domestic violence, can also spark violence in the workplace. “We know that 1 in 4 women at some point in their life report being a victim of domestic violence,” Vaughn said. “We want them to report that information. Why? Although they may have removed themselves from that situation – or that environment or even the household – to get away from the abuser… The abuser doesn’t know where they live, but guess what they do know? Where they work at.”
Determining Your Workplace Security Needs
While encouraging employees to share situations going on at home is a great step towards protecting your business, it may not be enough to prepare your workplace. Vaughn often receives calls after someone experiences a security issue or a major incident has been seen on the news. While this semi-proactive approach does lead to improved security, Vaughn recommends taking these steps before they are needed.
Identify Your Core Mission
The first step for Vaughn and his team is identifying an employer’s core mission. The core mission maps out the safety goals you’d like to reach and is the foundation for your security plan. Many organizations have existing workplace violence or safety policies, but they aren’t comprehensive enough to help everyone in an emergency.
Determine the Resources You Need to Achieve Your Goals
Once you identify your core mission, the next step is to define the resources you need to achieve your goals. How much time to do you need to build up your security? What financial resources do you need to upgrade old systems or bring in new equipment? Will you need support from leadership? Establishing this early will strengthen your long-term commitment to enhancing security.
Review Your Policies
Once you have identified your core mission and resources, review your own safety policies. You may already have a few in place, such as no-tolerance policies towards bullying and harassment. While these policies are essential, they are only part of a well-defined security plan. Vaughn recommends the following two policies as a great place to start:
Hardware and Software: What It Takes to Build Workplace Security
For Vaughn, there are two elements to safety in the workplace: hardware and software. Hardware is made up of equipment you can buy or install to make your workplace safer. Software consists of the training you can equip your employees with to better prepare them for potential security issues. You need both to secure your business.
Hardware: Implementing Physical Security Measures
There are several security options that can make your workplace safer based on your needs. Vaughn recommends looking for ways to improve your existing security protocols. This includes managing who has access to your building, how you identify visitors and employees, and policies for emergency situations. “We’re trying to create layers of access, layers of prevention, layers of awareness,” Vaughn said. Review the following areas to consider where to make improvements:
At many organizations, the process for admitting visitors can become relaxed over time. While some businesses restrict access to their organization starting from the parking lot, many begin at a front desk or lobby area. Certain employees—especially front-desk receptionists—may feel vulnerable as the first point of contact for a potential intruder. Strategos recommends a way for desk personnel to visually or audibly screen visitors before they enter.
For bigger or busier organizations, it may be hard to tell who in the crowd is a company employee. Is your staff required to wear a company ID badge or name tag? Determine how you’ll identify your employees, especially if you have a large staff or rotating shifts.
Software: Increasing Capabilities at the Grassroots Level
Equipping your employees with the knowledge they need to deal with a potentially dangerous situation is vital to increase the security of your organization. Often employees feel fear or anxiety talking about violence in the workplace. Vaughn recognizes that many employers avoid speaking to them about the subject for this reason. “Sometimes that’s the obstacle for some organizations – ‘We don’t want to train people because we don’t want to scare them on this topic.’” He acknowledged. “Fear is having a problem without having a solution.”
Without training, employees will simply react to an unsafe situation rather than taking specific steps to ensure their own safety and the safety of others. “Training implies a response, whereas a lack of training is where you’re going to get a reaction or instincts. Many people think that your instincts are the highest level of human performance and they’re not. We do not train to reinforce our instincts, we train to overcome them.”
Know Where to Go
Faced with the threat of violence, do your employees know where to go? Who will assist employees with disabilities? Are entrances and exits clearly marked and secured? Strategos focuses on helping employers empower their staff. “We know the single biggest step any organization can take to increase security is a trained employee,” Vaughn said.
Many workplaces struggle with old response models. A popular policy known as “Run, Hide, Fight” proved dangerously outdated in a 2016 attack at Ohio State University. Staff and students left the safety of secure buildings as the mantra instructed, where the attacker was pursuing people outside. In light of this example, Vaughn recommends the “Walk Out, Get Out, Take Out” approach. In this approach, the three courses of action are not in priority order and people have the flexibility to decide which action is best for their circumstance.
“My out may not necessarily be your out, so how are we going to determine which out? It’s going to be based on our location in relation to the threat and the environment that we find ourselves in.” Know the processes in place to hinder an intruder or evacuate exposed areas of your workplace. Then, meet with your employees and make sure they know where to go and who to refer to in an emergency.
Train Employees to Recognize and Report Red Flags
Inside the workplace, employees need to be able to recognize when their coworkers are in distress. “All bad acts are preceded by bad behavior,” Vaughn said. When outbursts of violence occur, clues are evident for weeks or months leading up to it. Traditional attackers perceive themselves to be the victim and others as victimizers. In committing acts of violence, they are trying to make the transition to what they consider to be the path of success.
Employees at risk of violence may make vague threats on social media or in conversation at work. They may also take a sudden interest in weapons, or even pose with them in photos online. Coworkers are often the first to know if their peers are experiencing trouble with money or increased emotions about a personal situation.
Encourage your employees to report anything out of the ordinary by reporting to Human Resources or another trusted source. Working with leadership to develop an anonymous system may also help people to come forward. Employees may fear being a “snitch”, but according to Vaughn with an employer’s help, “The life they save may be their own.”
Investigate Any Claims
When you receive a report, have a plan in place to protect not only your staff, but the employee at risk. Vaughn emphasizes that you need to protect the employee’s reputation and privacy, especially if any accusations turn out to be false. If needed, separate them from others to keep everyone safe. Then, investigate the claim. Vaughn recommends gathering information on the employee from the following five “domain” sources:
- Friends and family
- Local community
- Criminal history
- Civil (any situations involving finances, child custody, etc.)
Strategos specializes in conducting these kinds of investigation, and often recommends to their clients that they conduct them on their behalf.
Unfortunately, many employers avoid addressing workplace security because of liability concerns. Vaughn acknowledged these concerns, saying “Liability is a two-edged sword. It’s the cost of doing something versus the cost of doing nothing.” Often questions about liability are asked post-incident, with a focus on the following:
- Can/should these security needs have been reasonably anticipated?
- If the answer is yes, what steps or responsible preparation did the organization take to address it?
These questions evaluated not only by attorneys, but also by OSHA, which considers workplace violence a topic of compliance.
Solutions for Small Businesses
Large companies often have security programs already in place, and the budgets to regularly make improvements. However, for smaller businesses, budgets may be less flexible to provide their workplace with the necessary upgrades or training. Vaughn recommends looking into in-person training as an alternative to more expensive programs or considering virtual training as a lower-cost option. Improving existing policies and processes is also a cost-free step that everyone can benefit from.
To continue sending workers home safely and injury-free, it is vital to prepare for potential situations involving workplace violence. Listen to the full podcast with Vaughn Baker to learn even more about security solutions for your workplace. Then, visit our resource center for free starter kits, posters, podcasts and more.